Israel’s Arab citizens make up some 20 percent of the general population, but in Israeli politics they are usually portrayed as villains or, in the best case, walk-ons. No Arab party has ever been part of a government coalition, and in that tradition virtually every mainstream party running in Tuesday’s race for the 21th Knesset has preemptively ruled out a partnership with either of the two major Arab slates.
But, ironically perhaps, “the Arabs” played an oversized role in the outcome of the last elections, and they’re doing so this time, too.
On March 17, 2015, the last election day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, citing his fear of losing the election to Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union, infamously warned of Arabs “coming out in droves” to the voting booths. He later apologized for this incendiary claim.
In the current election campaign, Netanyahu invoked the Arab Israeli bogeyman as well. His rivals from the Blue and White party are unable to build a coalition without the support of Arab parties, he has stated repeatedly, and an Arab-backed left-wing government would spell disaster for Israel.
The polls indeed have shown Blue and White unable to build a majority coalition without the support of Arab parties, and likely unable to do so even with Arab support. Blue and White has however said it does not intend to partner with the Arab parties.
But Netanyahu’s remarks about Arab parties and their supporters have been condemned as divisive, in some quarters as racist, and widely as unbecoming for the leader of a democracy that respects all its citizens, regardless of their ethnic background or political orientation.
“There are no, and there will be no, second-class citizens, and there are no second-class voters,” President Reuven Rivlin said last month in what was widely understood as a rebuke of Netanyahu. “We are all equal in the voting booth. Jews and Arabs, citizens of the State of Israel.”
Over the last few days, Netanyahu has said he was seriously worried about losing the election to Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid. As he did four years ago, he launched into what is known in Israel as a “gevalt” campaign, downplaying polls that suggest he’s set for victory and raising fears of a “left-wing government backed by the Arab parties.”
Given that his strategy for the current election closely resembled that of 2015, many Israelis wondered if he would pull a similar stunt this time around as well. He was not expected to again warn of Arabs streaming to the voting stations, but the potential existed for him to come up with something else that would play on the same fears and similarly prod certain parts of electorate to the polling booths.
He and his Likud party may indeed have done so.
The polls had just been open for a few hours on Tuesday when it emerged that activists affiliated with Likud had brought some 1,200 hidden cameras to polling stations in Arab towns. The Likud later confirmed that it was responsible, claiming this was done openly to prevent election fraud.
Some of the cameras were hidden on the bodies of activists and observers, while others were reportedly deployed inside the actual polling stations, where filming is prohibited by law.
הליכוד לא יודע מה זה יושר. הכל קומבינות
פורסם על ידי שרה הראל ב- יום שלישי, 9 באפריל 2019
Netanyahu, asked about the reports as they emerged, defended the presence of cameras in general, saying they should be widely utilized, publicly, to “ensure a fair vote.”
“The cameras were intended to ensure a fair vote,” said Likud’s attorney Koby Matza. “The problem is in the behavior of those people in the Arab community. I’m getting reports from polling stations all over the country where our representatives, of Likud especially, are being kicked out of the polling stations in the Arab sector.”
At time of writing, it was unclear whether the prime minister or any of his staff were directly involved in ordering activists to the polls with cameras. (It was also unclear whether the move had deterred Arab voters from coming to vote, or had the opposite effect; turnout in the Arab sector was said to be extremely low as of mid-afternoon.) But Netanyahu’s not-so-subtle suggestion that there is a need to guarantee a “fair vote” in predominantly Arab areas certainly resembled his 2015 warning of Arabs voting in droves.
And that was not all.
At 12:20, Likud spokesman and Netanyahu confidant Yonatan Urich sent reporters a clip purportedly exposing a “deal” between Blue and White’s Ofer Shelah and Labor’s Amir Peretz to include the Arab parties in their future government.
“We must not let this catastrophe happen,” a voice says ominously.
About two hours later, Urich sent out another clip, showing Netanyahu talking about the same ostensible deal, and urging voters to prevent a leftist government by voting Likud.
תקשיבו לדיל של לפיד וגנץ עם המפלגות הערביות. העסקה נחשפת! חייבים להצביע רק לליכוד, כי רק ככה נעצור הקמת ממשלת שמאל בתמיכת המפלגות הערביות pic.twitter.com/cxPHeVB52i
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) April 9, 2019
From the 30-second Shelah-Peretz clip, which was secretly recorded last month in the Knesset, it is hard to gather exactly what the pair were promising each other. Presumably they were discussing ways to create a center-left government that would be supported from the outside by the Arab parties (which would not have to be formally members of the government in order to help Gantz become prime minister).
Blue and White slammed the publication of the taped conversation, and denied the Likud interpretation. “There are no secret deals, there’s no conspiracy,” Shelah said.
At 3:30, Urich sent reporters a photo of a Blue and White flyer written in Arabic, saying it called on “illegal aliens” to urge their relatives who are allowed to vote to support Gantz and Lapid. He did not further comment on the flyer.
Arab Israelis may play another role in the outcome of Tuesday’s election.
While Netanyahu’s warning in 2015 against Arabs voting in droves was meant to galvanize Jewish right-wing voters, some Arab candidates in 2019 were hoping to use this racist canard in their favor. A campaign poster from Hadash-Ta’al referenced Netanyahu’s quote, together with a photos of two buses. (The prime minister had accused left-wing groups of busing those droves of Arab voters to the polling stations.)
As of midday Tuesday, that Hadash-Ta’al strategy did not seem to be working out, with the indications that voter turnout was down in Israel’s Arab communities, which would work in the right wing’s favor. A lower overall turnout would mean the 3.25% electoral threshold would be calculated over a lower number of voters; that way several small right-wing parties could make it into Knesset with fewer votes.
The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a nongovernmental organization that follows political and social issues in Arab communities, said a recent poll it conducted indicated just 51.2 percent of the Arab public was expected to cast ballots on Tuesday. In 2015, 63.7% of Arabs voted; overall 2015 turnout was 71.8%.
Many voters in Arab towns told reporters they don’t think voting will improve their lives. Others said they were boycotting the elections in protest of last year’s Jewish Nation-State Law, which many Arabs argue disenfranchises them.
No Arab party will be part of the next government, whether it is formed by Likud or Blue and White. But their votes, or the lack thereof, are going to count. Hence, for the second election in succession, the central focus on the Arab polling stations.